October is American Archives Month! To celebrate, we’re highlighting ways in which archives are staying involved in current events around the world, featuring the American Heritage Center’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Wyoming. Archives like the AHC assist communities to not only preserve local history but to reflect on the state of the world. Or, in this case, the state of Wyoming.
The project began during the pandemic as the Center sought to collect and preserve residents’ experiences, thoughts, observations, and stories about the impact of the virus on every aspect of life, whether work, education, or home. The goal was to capture this moment in history by providing a voice to residents who might not be otherwise be represented in the historical record. The state of Wyoming, like the rest of the U.S. and much of the world, largely shut down during the height of the pandemic, leaving in its wake many disruptions and corresponding emotions to those disruptions.
The AHC’s COVID-19 collection now contains oral histories, articles, website captures, photographs, personal stories, correspondence, newspapers, and screenshots. Many of the collection’s images include masks, as they became everyone’s new normal. They range from self-drawn portraits, like the one below of community member Sarah Reilly, to that of Ursus, the bronze bear statue at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens also pictured below.
Community members also weighed in with their reactions to the initial onset of the pandemic, social distancing standards, and, for University of Wyoming students, the sudden shift to online classes after an extended spring break as well as canceling of the traditional commencement ceremony.
UW student Annie Stratton interviewed fellow student Christie Wildcat whose reflections on COVID’s beginnings and the university’s reactions were probably felt by many students. Wildcat said that she initially thought the virus wouldn’t come to Wyoming, that China’s lockdown would prevent it from spreading. As it became more prevalent in the news and the university announced extended spring break, she thought, “Oh cool! Longer spring break. We’ll be back.” Then came the dawning realization that, since many students were traveling for spring break, the virus could easily spread at UW. That’s when the thought hit her, “School’s going to be cancelled.” And she was right. The University of Wyoming, and all U.S. universities, quickly had to transition to online classes and were even forced to cancel commencements or move them onto platforms like Zoom.
Much of student life transitioned to Zoom, and it was a struggle for both students and teachers. Some of the oral histories in the collection relay that UW students felt like professors weren’t prepared for the online transition and it made classes more difficult. Others reflected that the campus community didn’t know how to use Zoom, so all had to learn as they went. Figuring out how to make presentations and to work in groups with members now spread all over the U.S. and abroad was another challenge. Students who struggled with online classes complained that they were confronted with whole new ways of learning on the fly, and it was stressful experience. The experience was especially disconcerting for seniors, such as Wildcat, who were on the brink of celebrating their graduation from college
The COVID-19 collection also highlights the impact on Wyoming communities in general. The images below are parks, businesses, and restaurants that had to adjust policies, limit customer interactions, or shut down completely.
People of all ages were impacted by the pandemic, and the AHC’s collection reflects on those impacts, but there are also messages of hope for the future, a light at the end of the tunnel. From displays in store windows to lawn signs, the Wyoming community figured out ways to come together to promote hope and love. Many images of that kind contain paper heart cutouts and the hashtag #WorldofHearts.
As the pandemic continued, businesses worked out ways to remain open amidst social distancing requirements. For example, restaurants transitioned to take-out, carry-out, and curbside dining, Those messages of hope continued, and people took advantage of the time at home to learn new things, spend time with family, and reflect on the world around them.
The American Heritage Center’s project gathered materials about the pandemic from 2020-2021, including newspaper articles from around the state, flyers from Wyoming Health Fairs, UW faculty and staff listservs, online news articles and stories relating to the pandemic, donations such as poems and artwork, and more. The collection can be viewed through its finding aid.
So, in honor of Archives Month, please consider how you could use your local archive to document your community. It could be donating your reflections and thoughts through an oral history, volunteering, interning, or attending a local historical event. It’s is all important, so don’t hesitate to join in.
Post contributed by AHC Archives Intern Brittany Heye.
 Transcription of oral history of Christie Wildcat by Annie Stratton. Item ah560006_2_3, COVID-19 Collection Project, 2020-2021, Collection No. 560006. American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.